The Normandy-Yorkshire Linguistic Connection

By Barrie M. Rhodes and Arnaud Le Fèvre

What springs to mind when we think of Normandy ? Holidays in a landscape of orchards, hedgerows and contented brown and white cows ? Cider, Calvados, seafood and creamy cuisine ? The birthplace of a certain Duke William, the victor at Hastings in 1066, and the home of the Bayeux Tapestry? Or, for those of us who are old enough to remember, perhaps the Allied landings of 6th June 1944 in a first step towards the liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe ?

But would we be likely to think immediately of Yorkshire dialects ? The Normans – they speak French don’t they ? Well, yes, in much the same way that most people in the United Kingdom speak something approaching Standard English. However, just as in England there are local dialects, so the Normans also have their own nonstandard speech variety. Nothing particularly surprising in that. But what may be a surprise is that the Norman dialecte shares quite a number of lexical features with the north of England, Yorkshire dialects. This is readily understandable when we recall that both Normandy and Yorkshire were at one time ruled over and settled by Vikings. Indeed, the name Normandy (or Normandie in modern French) is derived from terra Normannorum or Northmannia, ‘the land of the Northmen’.

In the 10th century the Viking chief Rollo acquired dominion of land around the Seine estuary, by agreement with Charles the Simple it is said, though the precise political circumstances are unknown. A larger area was conquered by campaigns in AD 924 and AD 933 and further Viking settlement took place as new Scandinavian bands arrived looking for land and booty.

Following the earlier pattern in Yorkshire and elsewhere, the Viking settlers found partners from the indigenous population of Normandy and, as in Yorkshire, physical and cultural assimilation took place, including the pidginisation and amalgamation of languages. The common factor in both Yorkshire and Normandy was, of course, the Old Norse tongue and this has left a legacy of nonstandard words which often have cognates or close-cognates in both the Norman dialect and the dialects of Yorkshire.

Charles Joret in 1883 identified an area of Normandy where the local language preserved the use of numerous lexical items which were Scandinavian in origin. He was able to determine an isogloss which demarcated the territory where Old Norse had been influential in the development of a particular nonstandard speech variety which emerged. This isogloss is known as the ligne Joret.

It is north of the ligne Joret that we find the widest use of the Old Norse-influenced dialect. Again paralleling the Yorkshire experience, this influence extended not only to general speech but also to place names and terms for landscape features. For instance, our familiar beck is bec in Normandy, from the Old Norse bekkr (= a stream). As in Yorkshire and other parts of The Danelaw, this term has become an element in several Norman place names, such as Orbec and Bricquebec,  which sit comfortably alongside such Yorkshire place-names Holbeck, Keasbeck and Castlebeck.

The Yorkshire/Danelaw dale for ‘valley’ is exactly the same in Normandy, dale, from the Old Norse dalr.

It is not always easy to immediately detect Yorkshire/Norman cognates because of the French influence on the latter’s orthography and pronunciation. For instance, one has to be alert to the French use of [é] where we have [s] in English. Once this is appreciated, Norman dialect words such as écalle and écore become understandable as scale (= summer dwelling) and scar (= rocky outcrop, cliff, precipice), both common landscape terms as well as place name elements in Yorkshire. If a Yorkshire person has recently taken a walk or been shopping along one of the numerous streets with a -gate suffix (Kirkgate, Micklegate, Briggate, Eastgate, etc.), then he or she may have been sharing an experience with a counterpart in Normandy (gate), as well as those in the Scandinavian countries and Iceland (gata, gade, gatta) – all from the Old Norse gata (= way, street).

Over time, of course, words from the same origin may undergo some semantic shifting, so that they no longer share identical meanings. Such is the case with the Yorkshire gawp (= to stare, open-mouthed). This shares an Old Norse ancestry in gapa (= to open wide the mouth) with the Norman gaupailler, there this now means “to eat gluttonously”. The ‘open mouth’ connotation, however, remains evident.

Inevitably, as with the Yorkshire dialect lexicon, many Old Norse-Norman words relate to wildlife and to maritime and agricultural objects and activities. Amongst these are coque or coqueron, corresponding to the Yorkshire (hay)cock; there are also crax(crake = crow), dic(k) (dyke) and dogue or doque (docken). Semantic shifting is again evident in the Norman étigot (a projecting piece of wood) which appears to have some relationship to the Yorkshire stee, both sharing an origin in the Old Norse stige (stile, ladder). You may have an area of woodland marked out for felling with hagg stakes in Yorkshire. Then perhaps you might employ a Norman farm labour to hagui (or chop) it. If this woodland stands on a haugh (hill, usually steep) your Norman farm labourer might refer to it as a hougue (mound, hill). While on the subject of woodland, a Norman grove of trees, londe, is easily recognisable as the lund we see so often on the map of Yorkshire, with exactly the same meaning (sometimes as a place name as well as a landscape descriptor). Norman slurry or liquid manure, grou, is no doubt very similar to the stuff that runs down the groop of a Yorkshire cowshed ! The pronunciation of the Norman word for ‘(a mess of ) water’, vâtre, is likely to have a particular appeal to those in Yorkshire who grew up pronouncing ‘water’ as watter. And perhaps some military historian can tell us whether the ‘Havercake Lads’ of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment ever confronted Norman French soldiers, who perhaps made their own version of oat cakes from the havroun they carried in a pouque (Yorkshire poke = bag, sack)!

Personal descriptive terms in Norman can be found which appear to have etymological association with Yorkshire words. For example, blake, which is used in Yorkshire to describe someone of sallow or yellowish complexion, appears to have the same Old Norse etymology (blek = pale) as the Norman bllêque (= overripe). A woman in Normandy may be described as embarnie (= with child, pregnant) and this appears to have association with the Yorkshire barn, the Old Norse (and modern Scandinavian) version of infant or young child. A Norman who is considered a simpleton or plays the fool is a leican; in Yorkshire one might say such a person is ‘…laikin’ the fool’. But be cautious of employing the Norman word for a young girl, for their hore or horette might well be misunderstood in Yorkshire !

There is much more which could be written about the linguistic similarities between Normandy and Yorkshire, particularly with regard to place names (which have been only lightly touched on in this article) and even family surnames. Space does not permit any deeper treatment of these subjects but perhaps these topics may suggest the content of future articles.

Bibliography :

Boimare, J. and Boëmare, J-M. Heimdal, No. 39.
Kellett, A. The Yorkshire Dictionary of Dialect, Tradition and Folklore.
Lepelley, R. Dictionaire Étymologique des Noms de Communes de Normandie.
Renaud, J. Les Vikings et la Normandie.
Roesdahl, E. The Vikings.

This article was published in the journal ‘The Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society’ (1998).

Corresponding Family Names of Scandinavian Origin in Normandy and Yorkshire

The Vikings left their mark on the dialect of Normandy and the dialects of Yorkshire, so that we can today find some cognates and near-cognates in both these language varieties.
Similarly, there are correspondences to be found amongst family names in both areas, derived in each case from the same Scandinavian sources. Here are some examples :

Scandinavian root Norman family name Yorkshire family name
Ásketill, Áskell, Árnketill. Anquetil Antell, Antill, Axtell, Eskell (these may be associated with the Yorkshire place- names Astley and Exelby)
Ásgautr Angot Angood.
bekkr (= stream) Le Bec Beck
Ketill (also occurs as an element in compound names, i.e. Ketill_____ and _____ketill. Quetil Kell, Kettle(s) (these may be associated with the place-name Keld.
lund (= copse; grove of trees) Lalonde Lund(s), Lound, Lounts, Lund(s), Lound, Lounts,
Thorstein Tostain, Toutain Thurston, Thurstan
Thorketil(l), Tóki Torquetil Thurkell, Thirkettle, Thirtle, Thirkil(l), Took(e), Tuck, Tuckey. (The Manx names Caukill,Cawkill, Corkill, Coakill,etc., are from the same Scandinavian source).
Thorgaut Turgot Thorogood, Thoroughgood.
Thorgísl, Thorgils. Turgis Sturge, Sturges, Sturgess
Thorvald Thérou, Thouroude Thursfield

This is by no means a complete list but is probably sufficient to demonstrate that family naming in both Normandy and Yorkshire, in the Viking Age, followed similar patterns and used the same Scandinavian sources. Nor can it be claimed that the names given above are to be found only in Normandy and Yorkshire respectively, for Viking influence spread beyond these regions and, of course, subsequent geographical mobility has also had an effect. The point is simply that these names are strongly associated with these regions and, by choosing these two, an effective comparison can be shown. If this stimulates others to research along similar lines, then our purpose will be served !

Further reading :

Rogers, K.H. (1991) Vikings and Surnames. ISBN 1 85072 086 X.
Rogers, K.H. (1995) More Vikings and Surnames. ISBN 0 9525967 0 9.
Prénoms normands et vikings auteur/author : Georges Bernage éditeur/editor : Heimdal – coll. Guide Heimdal

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.